Monday, 22 September 2008

Taking stock of Stockwell

The inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes will be important for a number of reasons. In the first place, it may provide some answers for his family - although, given the exhaustive airing the killing of this entirely innocent man has had over the past three years there can be little left to discover. It will test, and perhaps serve to correct, the excessively generous findings of the "Independent" Police Complaints Authority, which managed to blame both everyone and no-one. It may seal the fate of the unloved and already hopelessly compromised Sir Ian Blair. Most importantly, however, it is likely to influence the nature of policing in the capital, and elsewhere in Britain, for years to come.

If the inquest jury finds that the killing of de Menezes was lawful - despite the Brazilian's patent innocence - then the police will have something close to carte blanche to do the same thing again. We will have advanced a further giant stride towards remote, unaccountable, take-no-prisoners, Robocop-style policing. Extra-judicial execution, without benefit of trial, without testing of evidence, will have been vindicated, or at least excused, despite its tragic consequences in this case. Lessons that need to be learned will be forgotten. And sooner or later, perhaps in the feverish aftermath of another terrorist strike or attempted strike, another such shooting will occur. The dead man this time might or might not have been correctly identified, but he is just as unlikely to be carrying a bomb.

Operation Kratos, the ill-thought-out protocol under which Jean Charles de Menezes was gunned down, was not only ill-executed in practice, it was based on a severely flawed premise. In the spider-silk spin of official euphemism, it was explained to the public, not as "shoot to kill", but as "shoot to protect". The implication being that, if there is a possibility that the suspect is carrying a bomb then the "safe" thing to do is to kill him. After all, he might have detonated the bomb he might have been carrying, and the consequences might have been devastating. But that is to devalue the life of the individual: to choose the certain death of one above the speculative deaths of many. It also greatly overestimates the possibility that there will, in fact, be a bomb.

The policy is said to have been based on Israeli practice. But the situation in Jerusalem, where at one time suicide bombs were an almost daily occurence, bears no comparison with that in Britain. If you shoot someone on the streets of London who might be a bomber, the overwhelming probability will always be that an innocent man dies. Given the large number of people who look a bit like suicide bombers, and the vanishingly small number who actually are, the most likely result is always a false positive.

Much will be made in the inquest of the cock-ups and misjudgements that led to Jean Charles de Menezes being incorrectly identified as a terrorist suspect. But that is only half the problem. What if he had been the suspect? Is that sufficient reason to kill him? He was not, by all reliable accounts, behaving in a suspicious manner. He was not carrying anything that appeared to conceal a bomb. He was being held pinned to a seat, unable to move, let alone to set off a bomb. He was not resisting. He was, in short, under restraint and under arrest.
There was no need to shoot him. There are, of course, circumstances in which lethal force would be immediately required to stop someone in the process of setting off a bomb; but under no interpretation of the facts was such a test even remotely met at Stockwell.

Expect to hear a great deal of evasion and special pleading. We will be told how brave the firearms officers were to tackle a potentially dangerous suspect. We will be told that De Menezes's fate was sealed when he was incorrectly identified. We will be told that the men who fired seven bullets into the back of his unresisting neck (and whose identity is protected) deserve no criticism, because they believed they were acting under orders. Where have we heard that one before?

The Stockwell shooting was a failure of command. It was a failure of process, of leadership, and of policy. It was a failure of nerve. It was also a symptom of a police and security apparatus that has, faced with a limited (if not insubstantial) terrorist threat, lost a sense of proportion and forgotten that "protecting the public" means, above all, protecting individual human beings. But it was, more than anything else, a failure of personal responsibility. The officers who carried out the killing knew at the moment they fired their guns that Jean Charles de Menezes was no longer an immediate danger to the public, even if they sincerely believed that he had been. Yet still he died. No wonder conspiracy theories collect around this case like flies around a carcase. It was a pointless, unnecessary death; not because the intelligence failed but because the firearms officers themselves failed the ultimate moral test: to do what was patently the right thing, even if it was not their instructions, or to "follow orders", safe in the knowledge that they would not be held personally accountable.

2 comments:

valdemar said...

I agree wholeheartedly, for what it's worth. In general I sympathise with the police, who have to deal with the everyday consequences of a dysfunctional - but not especially violent - society. But here the the Met behaved like a Third World paramilitary goon squad. What I found particularly contemptible was the attempt to smear the man they shot and make out he was in some sense 'suspect'. I was inclined to believe the Met's line, which perhaps shows how old-fashioned I am.

Perhaps the best thing to do would be disband the Met and divide up London into local forces to tackle vandalism and teen street drinking, while setting up a proper, modern, 'clean' national police force to tackle serious crime.

therealalekid said...

I was going to post, but generally had little to add to the main thrust of the article.

But what I really hated was the very deliberate smear campaihn directed against the deceased man. The leaked stories of him being a drug dealer, or was an illegral immigrant none of which were ever substantiated.

On another side though I do remember watching the TV when this happened and i also remember the people they interviewed on TV who were also on the train. And there was one man who did say that Charles Menezes looked Asian 9which having seen photos of him he certainly doesn't) and there were I think some initial eye witness account that said that he ran on the train. Why these 'eye witnesses' got it so wrong I don't know, but that doesn't excuse at the deliberate attampt to ruin a dead mans reputation.